The Fallen World
“London” first appeared in Blake’s 1794 volume Songs of Experience. Along with the other poems in that collection, “London” offers a sobering response to Blake’s 1789 volume Songs of Innocence. The frolicking lambs and piping shepherds of Innocence are replaced by the “mind-forg’d manacles” and “youthful harlot” of Experience. The two volumes, released in Blake’s 32nd and 37th years, respectively, reflect the archetypal journey of maturation.
The journey also expresses Blake’s Christian conviction that humanity is fallen—a flawed race marked by limitation and prone to evil. For Blake, to attain experience is to realize that one is a fallen being in a fallen world. “London” can be read as a record of this grim realization. The speaker finds evidence of the primordial fall in the faces he sees, with their “Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” In Blake’s urban imagination (throughout his entire life, he almost never left London), the streets of late 18th-century London stand as a microcosm for the broader human world of “weakness” and “woe.”
Political Tensions in Great Britain
“London” is a deeply political poem. Blake most likely penned it in 1792, just three years after the French Revolution. Blake was initially enthusiastic about the prospect of revolution, going so far as to don the red cap of the resistance. But he became increasingly ambivalent towards the cause as he learned more about the sheer brutality of the revolutionaries. In the third stanza, the “hapless Soldier’s sigh” that “runs in blood down Palace walls” nods to the violence of the revolution unfolding across the English Channel. “London” captures the uneasy political climate of the British capital at a time when discontentment and dissent were widespread.
Blake himself was a ceaseless critic of the British crown and aristocracy, and his political attitudes permeate the poem. The “charter’d street” and “charter’d Thames” of the first stanza allude to the British government’s practice of selling public property to wealthy individuals, thereby “chartering,” or privatizing, them. The speaker’s sense of treading on owned ground—“I walk thro’ every charter’d street”—helps to establish the poem’s claustrophobic, anxious tone.
In the second stanza, the phrase “mind-forg’d manacles” reveals the political context in which Blake composed the poem. Among British dissenters of the time, “manacles” was a code word for accusing the crown of tyranny. Tellingly, Blake initially wrote “German-forg’d manacles,” a reference to the German mercenary troops the British government hired to quell potential rebellion in London. Blake’s later substitution of “mind” conveys the psychological dimension of political life. In Blake’s view, the oppressed are mentally oppressed and tyranny relies on mental manipulation. He always saw political conflicts as conflicts of ideas. Blake states this perspective clearly in the 1810 lyric “Jerusalem”: “I shall not cease from mental fight.”
Social Woes in Great Britain
Social issues take a prominent place in the poem. In particular, Blake attends to the institutions of marriage and prostitution, whose intertwined relationship was dire for several reasons. Blake narrows in on this relationship in the chilling fourth and final stanza , in which “the youthful Harlot’s curse / Blasts the new born Infant’s tear, / And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” At the time of Blake’s writing, London had some 50,000 prostitutes. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a culture rife with venereal disease. The gender dynamics driving sexual mores can be glimpsed in Blake’s lines. Men permitted themselves to indulge their sexual appetites widely, often with prostitutes, but severely discouraged women from doing so. Men, women, and children alike paid the price for this dire arrangement. Libertine men contracted syphilis, the “Harlot’s...
(The entire section is 1,663 words.)